Leading Senators Demand U.S. Limit Help for Beijing
March 16, 1999 - Eric Schmitt - The New York Times
Influential senators threatened Monday to
block the Clinton administration's leading diplomatic effort to
improve fast-deteriorating relations with China, and they urged the suspension of some scientific exchange programs.
Sens. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., said
they would move to stop any effort by the White House to help China
become a member of the World Trade Organization this year,
reflecting congressional anger over President Clinton's response to
suspicions that China stole nuclear secrets.
And the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence
Committee, Richard Shelby of Alabama, urged the president or Energy
Secretary Bill Richardson to put a moratorium on visits by
scientists from countries like China and Iran to American national
weapons laboratories, and on reciprocal visits by American
scientists to foreign installations.
"Our labs are not as secure as they should be," Shelby told
reporters after an hourlong, closed meeting with CIA Director
George Tenet. "This perhaps is just the tip of an iceberg."
The Energy Department last week fired a Taiwan-born scientist at
Los Alamos National Laboratory for security breaches, after the FBI
questioned him in connection with the suspected theft of nuclear
weapons designs. Investigators say they believe the scientist, Wen
Ho Lee, gave the Chinese sensitive information on nuclear
detonations during a visit there for a 1988 seminar. Lee has not
been charged with any crime, but is the prime suspect in the case.
China denies any theft and has called the allegations of nuclear
Members of the House and Senate have criticized the
administration for not tightening security quickly enough and
failing to keep Congress adequately informed about the seriousness
of the possible breaches at Los Alamos.
David Leavy, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said
Monday night the administration would work with Congress to resolve
the WTO issue, but the official rejected Shelby's proposal.
"There's no evidence the visitors program has contributed to any
damage to national security," Leavy said.
The double-barreled attack from Capitol Hill came as Richardson
and Tenet, in separate closed briefings, tried to contain the
political fallout from the administration's handling of the spy
case by explaining steps the administration has taken to prevent
any more thefts.
Tenet announced that a retired four-star admiral, David
Jeremiah, will head an independent panel of experts to review the
possible harm to national security resulting from suspected thefts
that took place in the 1980s and that were discovered by nuclear
arms experts at Los Alamos in 1995. Jeremiah is expected to report
by early next month.
But even as the administration stepped up its defense of its
response to the spy case, the White House took a blow on its trade
policy with China. The warning from Helms, chairman of the Foreign
Relations Committee, and Hollings, the ranking Democrat on the
Commerce Committee, was issued in a letter sent to all senators.
"The continuing problems with Chinese human rights violations,
espionage and possible technology transfers," they wrote,
"suggest that this is not the appropriate time for China to enter
Only two weeks ago, in Beijing, Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright assured China's leaders that the question of whether China
was ready to enter the WTO -- a decade-long aspiration for China and
a move that could prove enormously beneficial to the country's
economy -- would be decided solely on commercial grounds. It would
not hinge, she said, on China's human rights record or other
But in recent weeks it has become increasingly clear that even
if that is the administration's plan, the atmosphere in Congress is
rapidly changing. And congressional approval will be necessary,
because China's entry would require a major amendment of the law
that allows Congress to review, each year, whether to extend "most
favored nation" trading status to Beijing.
"This has become a poisonous issue," one of the president's
top economic advisers said the other day. "And it could blow up
the whole deal, if there is a deal."
The letter from Sens. Helms and Hollings, which was reported in
Monday's Wall Street Journal, mirrors conditions that the House
Democratic leader, Dick Gephardt of Missouri, has made and portends
a tough fight for China to join the WTO this year.
Even as anger in Congress grows on the trade front, there is
greater anxiety over security at Los Alamos and other national
weapons labs. The labs had long resisted FBI and congressional
pressure to tighten their security policies.
The Energy Department, which oversees the labs, has been lax in
its supervision. The department, for example, never filed a
congressionally required annual report in 1998 on the status of
security at the labs.
Shortly after taking over as Energy secretary last fall,
Richardson learned of the urgency of the spy case and reinstated
background checks on all foreign visitors, but it was a move the
FBI had recommended 17 months earlier.
Shelby was unmoved Monday, saying, "The president or the Energy
Secretary should put a moratorium on the exchange of people coming
into our labs, and our scientists going to their labs, and perhaps
giving them information."
Sen. Bob Kerrey, of Nebraska, the Intelligence Committee's
ranking Democrat, distanced himself Monday from Shelby's suggestion
of a moratorium noting that "it's not a situation where foreign
visitors are the problems, it's the employees."
The Energy Department, in a statement Monday night, said
rigorous screening and security measures were in place to insure
foreign visitors could not gain access to classified material.
But Kerrey expressed concern over security at the laboratories,
even with the improvements Richardson has put in place, including
doubling the counterintelligence budget.
"I no longer have any sense of security that we're doing the
right thing," Kerrey told reporters after meeting with Tenet.
"What I have right now is a considerable amount of nervousness
over our counterintelligence efforts and their effectiveness."
As Senate Republicans pounced on the spy case as evidence that
the administration's policy of engaging China turned a blind eye to
national security, a top Republican analyst, William Kristol,
accused congressional Republicans of hypocrisy.
"Republicans have largely supported the president and Sandy
Berger on engagement and trade above all else in China," Kristol
said Monday, referring to the president's national security
adviser, Samuel Berger. "Ultimately, it looks like, hey, something
hit the headlines and let's take advantage of it."
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